There’s something sinister lurking behind Apple Music. On the third day of my trial subscription, I have roughly listened to… ah well zero music from the new application, but yet looking through the recommendations it has for me, it was surprisingly accurate. My selections from those irritatingly limited choices that bounced on the screen were kept to three with Portishead, FKA Twigs and Wagner – choices made for the sake of pressing buttons more than anything else – and yet Apple Music’s recommendations include Four Tet, Egyptrixx and Falty DL; artists that appear to be specifically tailored to my tastes, but have no real connection to any of the artists in my bubble selection. That’s one hell of algorithm! Or, is it? It is perhaps more likely that those artists and albums are only associated after some clever market research peered them together through statistical sales data. FKA twigs falls into the same category as Egyptrixx and Four Tet, not based on similarities in style and sound, but solely based on where they fall on a popularity graph. If there were a vested interest in recommending music to me with a connection, surely Arca would have been first on that list. He produced much of FKA twigs’ music and if they can recommend Björk why not Arca, the artist that actually closes the circle of associations between the other two, working with both? Considering where Arca’s music would fall on the popularity scale, left still of the counter-culture appeal of his contemporaries, it immediately becomes evident why the Venezuelan producer is notably absent from Apple’s recommendation list. He doesn’t quite fit the profile according to the marketing statistics. Falty DL’s Into the Wild is more relevant in this regard, garnering much more attention than Arca’s Xen, even though both were released around the same time and Xen is much closer in terms of style and execution to FKA Twigs’ LP1.
The other issue with these recommendations, and something that Scott Wilson over at Fact pointed out, is that as a result of this popularity contest behind the scenes, the music that Apple recommends is the music that you already know about and probably even own. It’s like they are selling your own record collection back to you. “Listen to Egyptrixx A/B till infinity because you have already on multiple occasions.“ Yes, thanks Apple, I actually have a copy here in My Music, but you probably know that too. It’s the safe bet and we will follow their recommendations blindly when we lack the patience of searching for new music. How often has it not happened to you that you’re in need of something to listen to, but lack the short term memory to recall anything off hand and go with what’s immediately available, in this case an Apple Music recommendation based on what you’ve already heard. Familiar territory is always more appealing than the abyss of the vast unknown. Apple could probably be much more daring, adjusting the algorithm to perhaps suggest some music that doesn’t garner the same level of popularity as your selection. Perhaps, something truly independent, from the likes of a new artist with a small, but dedicated following whose music warrants more attention. That is unlikely to happen, however. It was after all one popular artist that changed Apple Music’s royalty policy over the trial period and not the hoards of independent artists shouting at the top of their lungs.
Behind this predilection for popular demand lurks something very alarming indeed. As I scroll through the long list of recommendations, I have no need to be reminded of, I get to Daft Punk’s Discovery, an album I’ve never liked and has no relevance to FKA twigs or Portishead, let alone Wagner. The idea of having to endure one more time, another time discourages me immediately and I imprison Apple Music behind the wall of my screensaver, while I regain my composure. That recommendation was completely uncalled for, and I’m pretty sure any person whose tastes align with anything from pop music to experimental electronica, will have the same recommendation imposed on him or her. Yes, s/he wouldn’t have to listen to it, but surely the fairly large advertisement on the small screen of my phone could have perhaps been better suited to recommend an artist like Lokier. It seems Apple Music is also a billboard – possibly available for rent too – where it promotes some artists over others for a bigger chunk of that royalty pie. Yes, it is a pie and it does get divided. You only have twenty hours a day to listen to music, and even that would be impossible. So if Daft Punk take up 4 minutes of your time one more bloody time, they take up the space that could have been used for new music. And since streaming royalties are tied up with the number of plays an artist gets, it means that Daft Punk and Columbia are taking money they probably don’t need, from an artist or record label that could have rather filled up that time, and almost certainly the time it would take to find said artist behind the wall of advertisements that make up Apple Music’s recommendations.
And here we thought Apple Music was the streaming revolution’s saving grace. It’s Spotify with the focus on Yes, the radio channel is apparently decent, but incorporating a radio station in a streaming service is a bit like having a wind up mechanism for your computer. It’s a redundant advancement in the age of the Internet and streaming. They could’ve done much better by perhaps shifting the focus from being a marketing tool, to actually promoting new music. I don’t need to hear about the last FKA twigs release, I can listen to it at any time. Tell me about what I missed out on while I was listening to it, and don’t tell me what was listened to once by many people, tell me what a handful people listened to, and kept returning to.